Thursday, April 07, 2005

Tuesday's Adventures

Yesterday, I went to London to climb the Monument. According to my entrance ticket, the Monument is the tallest freestanding Doric column in the world. Built between 1671 and 1677 by Sir Christopher Wren and Dr. Robert Hooke to commemorate the Great Fire of London in 1666, the column is 202 feet tall (exactly the distance from the tower to the source of the fire). The balcony is 160 feet up the tower and can only be reached by climbing 311 steps. (Keen mathematicians will realize that 160 is less than 202…the remaining 42 feet consists of a drum and a copper urn from which symbolic flames emerge.) The Monument is located just outside the Monument tube station (how nice…they named the column after the subway stop…) quite near the Thames.

To reach the top, you first squeeze through the narrow entranceway – only the size of a standard doorway, they’ve handily placed two turnstiles, one in and one out. Evidently, if you can’t squeeze your way through the entry, you need to take that as a clue and not continue up the column. Once through the turnstile, you pay your admission fee (yes, I know, normally one pays first and THEN passes through the turnstile). When I visited the Tower Bridge last week, I purchased a combination ticket to the bridge and the Monument, saving myself £1.

Then, you climb, and climb, and climb. If you’re lucky, as you’re climbing, you won’t meet anyone coming down. Unfortunately, I wasn’t so lucky. The nice thing, though, is that the lower portion on the column is generally wide enough to allow two people to pass on the stairs, although one of you ends up on the narrow part of the spiral stairs. My technique of choice was to stop climbing, cling to the rail and let the other person pass. As you climb higher, the column narrows and makes it harder for people to pass. They still try though.

If you stand at the bottom and look straight up the centre, all you see is a spiral that appears to extend infinitely. When you’re climbing, you realize that the appearance of extending infinitely isn’t just an illusion…you really do climb forever. Combine that with getting slightly dizzy from the constant circular motion. Then, if you’re really lucky, you’ll be about 10 steps ahead of a little kid who loudly counts each step along the way. You find yourself thinking, ‘if he doesn’t hurry up and get to 300 soon….’

Then you reach the top and are rewarded with some very nice views of London. Of course, your nice views are tempered by the fact that you’re desperately trying to keep your back against the column while at the same time inching near enough to the edge to get some nice pictures. A handy sign directs the flow of traffic anticlockwise (that would be to the left as you come onto the balcony). This is a rather nice, helpful idea until you reach the back and part of the balcony is roped off. (When’s the last time YOU got hemmed into the corner of something round?) Anyway, once you push your way past the group of French tourists and get back to the door, you can begin your descent back down the column. Luckily, the counting kid seems to have disappeared and there isn’t anyone to remind you of how far you still have to fall…I mean, descend.

Upon your successful completion of the climb up and the descent back down, you are rewarded with a certificate that certifies you have climbed the 311 steps of the column. (After realizing that they give you the certificate after you come down, I don’t suppose you actually HAVE to climb all the way up…just go up about 10 steps or so, wait a few minutes and climb back down…but then you miss the sheer terror…I mean, sheer delight of seeing London from 160 feet up on an exposed platform that is more than 325 years old.) It’s interesting the things that go through ones mind on such a climb…I mean, I can know how much trouble I had with some of my engineering classes even though I had a computer…I sincerely doubt that Sir Christopher had a computer…I wonder just how strong these cantilevered steps are after 325 years…an interesting word, cantilever…it means ‘totally unsupported on one end…usually the end upon which you’re putting the entire weight of your body….

Now, after climbing high above the world, I decided to descend below its surface with a visit to the ‘Secret Nuclear Bunker at Kelvedon Hatch (in Essex)’ – that’s what the brochure says. So, first, some background. During the Cold War, the government of England decided that they needed a network of underground bunkers in case of nuclear attack. The bunker was originally used as an RAF ROTOR station (even though I know you know what that is, I’ll tell you that it was used by the Royal Air Force to plan counter attacks following a nuclear attack), then it briefly became a civil defence station, and then became a Regional Government Headquarters where up to 600 civilian and military personnel (perhaps even the Prime Minister) would have gone to ‘organise the survival of the civilian population in the aftermath of nuclear war.’ This particular bunker was active until 1994.

How does one go about locating a Secret Nuclear Bunker? It’s simple…you just follow the signs. Really. Local road signs point the way to not only neighbouring towns but also to the bunker. It is somewhat odd to see signs reading ‘Secret nuclear Bunker.’ I also had directions from the website. I was prepared, really. (Yes, I know, you’re not used to me actually being prepared for an excursion, but I had copies of the directions in hand.)

Now, frankly, I don’t know why the government bothered to hide this place. I had directions and even road signs point to it and I nearly never made if there. The directions were simple: by underground – ‘Take the Central Line to Debden, Theydon Bois or Epping, and then a 7 mile taxi ride. There is also a bus service from Epping, which is the 501 Townlink bus.’

Simple, right? I got to Epping just fine – it’s the last stop on the tube’s Central line. Once there, I found the bus stop right outside the station door. Glancing briefly at the bus schedule posted there, I found that the bus did indeed stop at Kelvedon Hatch. The only problem was, it looked like the bus took over an hour to get there. So, I decided to check the taxi prices. After being laughed at when I said it was supposed to be a 7 mile taxi ride (‘Not hardly, mate, more like 15.’), I was told it would be about £15 each way. Now it was my turn to say, ‘Not hardly, mate.’

I went back to the bus stop only to see the exhaust fumes of the 501 bus roaring away. Checking the bus schedule again, I learned two things. First, the bus took over an hour from BRENTWOOD station but I was at Epping station, a much shorter distance from Kelvedon Hatch. Second, the bus I needed only ran once an hour.

So, I decided to walk to the town centre to wait for the next bus. About an hour later, I caught the bus, and rode out to Kelvedon Hatch. (Incidently, Kelvedon Hatch is, and has been, the village name long before the bunker was there…I figured ‘hatch’ referred to ‘bunker opening’ but evidently, since some other villages have Hatch as part of their name, it refers to something else. This bit of information would have come in very useful BEFORE my trip.)

I was on a bus whose driver made it his personal mission to get all passengers to their destination as quickly as possible, even when circling the local hospital parking lot. We passed the earlier mentioned Secret Nuclear Bunker signs and I finally saw the sign for the ‘Bunker Car Park (160 yds).’ Quickly pressing the ‘Please stop at the next bus stop’ button, I watched as the driver (very, very quickly) passed the entrance. We eventually stopped at the edge of the next village, about a mile or so away. (In reality, it was probably only a half a mile away, but at that speed, it seemed much farther.)

Beginning my walk back to the entrance, I realized that not only was there no sidewalk, there wasn’t even much of a verge (shoulder) so I ended up walking along the edge of a farmer’s field. I reached the entrance to the bunker car park and realized I still had a substantial walk ahead of me since the bunker was located in the middle of this field. Now really, if you’re going to the trouble of having signs leading to your secret nuclear bunker, why bother putting the entrance in the MIDDLE of the field?

I finally reached the car park area and found the small path leading to the bunker. Entrance was through a small bungalow, not out of place at all except for the surveillance cameras along the roofline. Keep in mind that the last person I have seen is the back of the bus driver’s head as he zoomed off towards Brentwood. Since then, I’ve walked through two different fields, along a dirt road, around curves, and through some woods. Now, I’m getting ready to enter a house. By this point, I couldn’t wait to see another human being.

Unfortunately, this bunker is run on the honour system. Really. A handwritten sign at the ticket booth tells visitors that their admission fee is payable at the end and to please nip around inside the admission booth and pick up a handheld audio trail guide. Arrows on the floor directed me further down the entry tunnel. Several additional signs warned me that by passing I agreed to pay my admission fee at the exit. Oh yes, and I was being watched by video.

Here I was in the middle of Essex, alone in a secret nuclear bunker going 75 feet underground, with nothing but a handheld audio guide. All of this was creepy enough until I started hearing things. Despite what I first thought, I wasn’t going crazy…these were actually recorded sounds being played to enhance the experience of the bunker. The creepiness would only get worse when I saw the dressed mannequins placed through the bunker. I finally ran across two other visitors about halfway through my tour. It was somewhat a relief to find two other people who also had their audio guides stuck the their ears.

So, audio guide to my ear, I walked down the entrance corridor, through the heavy blast doors, and into the communications centre, where, despite being physically cut off from the world, the bunker was connected by more then 2000 phone lines, as well as radio and computer links. The bunker also had a BBC radio studio where people (including perhaps the Margaret Thatcher mannequin there today) cold have addressed the nation. I also passed through the Scientists’ Centre, the Military Operations Command Centre, and the Devolved Central Government area. The tour also included the plant room with its life support systems, the startlingly small sick bay, and through several dormitory rooms. Since the bunker was built to house 600 people, but for some reason only had room for 200 beds (even after a number of beds were placed in the entry corridor – outside the main blast doors), the bunker would have operated under a ‘hot bunk system’ – you had an 8-hour shift in your bed after which someone else had an 8-hour shift in your bed, followed by another person’s 8-hour shift in your bed. Thus, all 200 beds were used constantly. The tour also included a toilet area where each sheet of toilet paper was marked ‘Government Property – Use Both Sides’ and the soap was marked with the Queen’s seal and initials.

The tour ended, surprisingly enough, in the gift shop and snack bar. It was here that I finally saw the man who oversaw it all. He was sitting at a table, oddly uninterested in anything going on around him. The video monitors watching my progress through the bunker were across the room, unmonitored. My bunker admission fee was paid into an honour system box along another wall…a sign said to put in your money and take what change you needed. Souvenirs and snacks were sold on the same basis. All in all, it was a rather odd afternoon.

Of course, then I needed to get back to civilisation. On my trek back through the farmer’s field, I watched the 501 bus go by. Finding the bus stop, I read that the next bus was due in an hour, but I could get a bus to the Brentwood Station in just a few minutes. Actually, the bus didn’t stop at the station, but it got me close. So, I took that bus, walked to the station, and took a train back to London. Obviously, the British government wasn’t expecting any invaders to take advantage of public transportation. Or, maybe they were (and still are) which explains the difficulty getting places…

On the way back to London, I noticed in the paper that an art exhibit was taking place near the station where I would end up (Liverpool Street). The Red Bull drink people sponsored an art competition called the 2005 Red Bull Art of Can Exhibition. The competition was ‘designed to embody the “mind” element of the Red Bull philosophy “stimulation for the body and mind.”’ Seems like an excuse for free advertising for me. But anyway, the deal was that artists could make whatever they wanted as long as they used a can of Red Bull somewhere. And, despite the obvious commercialism, some of the entries were really good.

(And, before you think that I actually got someplace yesterday without getting lost or trekking through a field, don’t worry. I, not having my London map and not being able to reach the ones behind the counter at the bookstore, wandered about lost for a while, went back to the train station and asked directions. It turns out that the Old Truman Brewery is located in the middle of a large Bangladeshi community. Interesting.

After all that, I had some dinner and took the train back to Stevenage.


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